Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nothing Will Ever Be The Same!

This is my "event comics" rant. If you're sick of those, feel free to move on; I'll completely understand.

I'm sure you've read by now any number of diatribes about how marvel and DC have largely shifted to the event comics format. You know, where there's one line-wide concept that ties dozens of titles together in a larger story? Civil War, Sinestro Corps War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Countdown, etc. A lot of the discussion seems to center around the notions that A) the content is editorially driven, and B) there's a blatant attempt on the part of the publishers to coerce you into buying comics you wouldn't normally buy, just to get the "complete" story of the event. Those are certainly fair targets for attack, but I'm going to hit another one that isn't spoken of much. (Well, I don't recall seeing it at any rate.) In point of fact, the publishers are lying to their audience.

One of the reasons these events have begun happening with greater regularity is that publishers have been continuing to up the ante on their stories for several decades now. At first, a hero's biggest concern was that his secret identity might be uncovered. Then, there was the possibility of a loved one getting hurt. Next, the whole city was in peril. Soon, it was the planet. The galaxy. The time-space continuum. And so on. Part of that increasing level of threat, if following a logical progression, would involve more and more people. Sure, the Fantastic Four were able to fend off Galactus, but you have to call in the whole roster of Avengers to get rid of a Kree invasion. That continued escalation has continued to the point where the next natural extension is to involve EVERYONE. Not just the heroes, but everyone. Paul Jenkins' various "Front Line" books are premised on the fact that the lead protagonists are normal folks who, until then, barely had been named.

Coupled with the increased level of threats to the characters, publishers then find themselves in the unenviable position of having to ramp up the hyperbole surrounding the event as well. It's not just affecting Captain America anymore, but the whole universe. Every character is touched in a profound way. "Nothing will ever be the same!"

Except, of course, that's a lie.

DC and marvel both have large a caches of characters that have achieved a certain level of popularity. They achieved that popularity because of a certain mix of character traits that were given to them in their creation and that mix proved to resonate with readers. To maintain that popularity (and the associated cash flow) the publishers ideally would keep the characters from changing as little as possible to continue to appeal to readers in the same way. They have a vested interest in ensuring that "Nothing will ever be the same" never happens. Batman needs to keep being Batman in order to keep selling.

There's the not-infrequently-cited "illusion of change" with new costumes or new powers or whatever, but the reason those work at all is because the changes made are superficial. John Byrne somewhat famously did exactly back on his Fantastic Four by replacing the Thing with She-Hulk, and having the Human Torch date Thing's girlfriend. The dynamic was virtually identical -- whereas Ben felt apart from his friends and humanity because of his appearance, Jen felt like a fifth-wheel with regard to how comfortable she was being a part of the FF's family. The other characters all interacted with her in almost the exact same way that they would've interacted with Ben.

But here's the thing: Life is constant. Whatever happens on the planet today, it's the same shit, different day. Despite the popularity of the refrain, the world did NOT change after 9/11. People are people, and there will always be fights over land and money and power. There will always be leaders who seek to take personal advantage of political crises. There will always be a struggle between individuals' rights and the rights of the state. People will always hate and fear what they don't understand. People will always shout loudly in protest, but not act on it. People will always try to leave their mark on the planet in whatever way they can.

Yeah, we've got cars and planes and rockets now that weren't here 100 years ago. And we've got television and computers and cell phones. But that's all fluff. It's superficial. The basic elements that make us human are no different than they were 5,000 years ago.

So, for a publisher to claim that their stories will change everything forever is, in fact, a double-lie. Because if they're reflecting real life (which they claim to) then there shouldn't be an effective changes, and they've also got that vested financial interest in perpetuating the status quo.

So, do two lies make a truth?

It turns out that it doesn't matter, because they're lying a third time anyway. We've seen time and time again that any time a comic creator at the Big Two does try to make a substantive change, it's over-ridden a few years later. Spider-Man's had this done I-don't-know-how-many times. "No, he's not married to MJ any longer. And he never was married in the first place." "No, Aunt May isn't dead. Again." "No, the clone that we told you was the real Peter Parker really wasn't." "Yes, even though he swore he'd hang up his tights, Spider-Man is back in action. Again."

Let me ask you this: how many of you really believe that we'll never see Steve Rogers in the Captain America uniform again?

You're being lied to.

Don't get me wrong, I expect any degree of marketing or advertising is going to have some measure of falsehood to it. And for as much as I try to tell the truth all the time, I'll admit that there are occasions when a lie is warranted for "higher" reasons. But that I'm being lied to three-times-over in one claim strikes me as a bit over-the-top, and is yet another reason why the event comic stories are really wearing thin for me (even though I don't buy them in the first place).

6 comments:

plok said...

Can I rant too, Sean?

My thinking on this is that event comics have always mattered much less, though they claim to matter much more, than regular-issue comics. Regular-issue comics allows for incremental changes that can stick for a few years before being reversed precisely because they're so superficial and reversible in the first place. But when the crossover events deliver Big Changes, these have to be swiftly negated (if necessary, reversed or even retconned), and I think that's just what we used to see in big event comics of the past: individual lines immediately start to neuter the event's larger implications, and go at it for maybe a year or two years until it's like the event never happened at all. In other words, a permanent superhero War Council like the Illuminati doesn't get set up -- everyone just goes back to fighting the Mole Man or the Melter or whatever it is they do. That Superman knows he's still alive and living in the sun 853,000 years from now doesn't change a single thing about his outlook. And that's not exactly news, it's just what you're saying: they lie about those "event" comics, because really they're non-event comics. And that's a lie I can live with.

But what's happening now? Now the problem is that second lie you're talking about, which I think comes out of the publishers for some reason allowing themselves to act like they believe the first lie even more than we the readers do. It's very odd: now they're promising us that the lie won't turn out to be a lie, and producing these weird bonafides like covert superhero conscription, massive superhero wars involving massive civilian casualties, mass executions of old characters, mass reactivation of old dead "event" comics' long-ago discarded implications, sweeping retcons flying every which way (but not necessarily rationalizing anything, in fact usually doing the opposite), and mass reboots everywhere seemingly of just about anything that can be rebooted. I mean, it's a fantastic mess, and apparently it's all to show us that the lie we all know to be a lie, and forgive for being a lie, really isn't a lie. Except, as you note, it really still is. And so that "second" lie you were talking about, the promise to reflect the real world somewhat in the pages of the comics -- wow, like, does the real-world America look remotely like the comic-book America, at this point? No, because treating stuff that happens in the superhero genre "realistically" just means that that world is ten thousand million billion miles away from anything that could ever happen here. It stops being even a metaphor. Like, metaphor for what? What are they all trying to say with the fallout from Civil War, for example? What's the point? I'm damned if I can make out a point to The Initiative, you know? In the Secret Empire days, the point was pretty obvious, kind of simplistic really. Same with the whole Skrull invasion thing that was done a few times, easily analyzed. As far as the clever, subversive use of "realism" in things like, say, Miracleman, the point was also clear. But what's the point here, just "you think we're lying about not lying, but if we were lying for real, would we be doing all this crazy incoherent stuff that will force us to go back on everything we've promised?" Oh my goodness. I guess...yes, you would? "No, we totally wouldn't."

Now that's some kinda lie, holy cow.

Ahhh...I enjoyed that. Sorry for the hijack.

John said...

Hi Sean,

We must be on the same wavelength. I did an "index" of amusing trends (amusing to me, anyhow) trends culled from the most recent DC and Marvel solicitations and found that the phrase "change forever" (or some variant of it) appears in solicits for five different titles.

The index is here:

http://popculturesafari.blogspot.com/2008/01/dcmarvel-solicitations-index-april-2008.html

Pj Perez said...

Welcome back, Sean. I was just going to say, "Amen," and leave it at that, but then I got to thinking ... "event" comics and crossovers have been going on for a long time, but here's the notable difference between now and, let's say, the 1980s: In the '80s, they DID matter, and they DID make changes.

The changes rendered upon the DCU with "Crisis on Infinite Earths" actually reshaped every book in the company in permanent ways that lasted for ... well, even with the Infinite Crisis on 52 Countdowns to Zero Hour, the continuity changes are mostly still effective. "Secret Wars" set up storylines with long-running ramifications: Spider-Man's black costume, Ben Grimm/Alicia Masters/Johnny Storm relationship, etc. Those changes seemed less editorially-mandated than just inspired new directions by individual titles' writers. I mean, look, the Lyja-Alicia thing was dumb, but it was an inspiration unfolded from what was seeded back in 1984.

The mutant crossovers of the '80s had similar, permanent effects: "Mutant Massacre" reshaped the X-Men team, basically spawned X-Calibur, afforded the (re-)creation of Archangel, etc. "Fall of the Mutants," again, reshaped the X-Men, leading to the cool Aussie outback years and eventual Siege Perilous reinventions ...

I dunno. It just seemed storylines flowed more naturally and organically then. And the big "events" just served as kinda big idea sounding boards. Boy, I think this could be reshaped into an entry for my own damn blog. Whoops. :)

Adam said...

How can you say that Civil War didn't fundamentally change the marvel universe? It's spawned a number of new books (The Order, Avengers: The Initiative, The Mighty Avengers) and drastically its effects were felt in a variety of others (Thunderbolts, New Avengers, Captain America, Heroes for Hire). While the book itself kind of sucked, the reverberations were definitely felt.

John Seavey said...

It didn't "fundamentally" change the Marvel Universe because the Order's already been canceled, and there's no guarantee that the Initiative or Mighty Avengers will be around in five years. That's the point of the column; that "big changes" in event storylines tend to get retconned away once the writers get bored dealing with them. (I'm currently writing a book on the history of the event crossover, and believe you me, it's some eye-opening stuff, looking at how many deaths get undone, how many "important new characters" vanish never to be seen again after a year or two, and how many "event spin-off" titles last less than 24 issues.) "Fundamental" changes seem a lot less fundamental five years down the line.

That said, I'll point out that Ed Brubaker never said anything like, "You'll never see Steve Rogers in the Captain America uniform again." The only thing he said was that, as of Cap #25, he'd planned the book out for the next year and a half and Cap would still be dead by then. So unless Captain America returns before issue #36, it's a bit unfair to call him a liar.

heinz said...

"Let me ask you this: how many of you really believe that we'll never see Steve Rogers in the Captain America uniform again?

You're being lied to. "

I'd be surprised if anyone reading Cap right now wasn't expecting Rogers to come back at some point or another. And I'd guess most readers are expecting that Brubaker will be the one to bring him back. I don't feel like I'm being lied to anymore than when I watch the part in a heist movie where they say "We're going to rob the First National MacGuffin Bank, and here's exactly how it's all going to go down."

Rogers will be back eventually, it'll be part of the larger storyline, and the readers most likely know this. In the meantime, as far as I'm concerned at least, we're getting some great stories involving Bucky, Falcon, Agent 13, Iron Man, Black Widow and the Red Skull.

Seems like a good deal to me. In this one case, at least.